Dealing with experience is like trying to recover a dropped garden hose without getting yourself wet. Experience influences the effects of story on you as though your individual range of experiences were that same, dropped garden hose, drenching everything in sight without pattern or purpose.
If an event does not in that metaphoric sense drench you with the details you noticed while being its witness or participant then it cannot have been a memorable one.
Somewhere in your third or fourth year, you remember living with your parents and sister in a large, Mediterranean-style home in Burbank. You remember the door to the bathroom having a pane of frosted glass. You remember next door neighbors, generically The Browns, but it no greater detail. You remember them having a dog named Silver, who, when it bit you, you returned the favor. Such memories have done you no tangible good. You remember these details. No one is alive to ratify or contest them. Yet you have them.
You'd moved from Burbank to mid-Wilshire, mid-town Los Angeles, to Orange Street, of which you have vivid memories, including the one hiding in the closet during your sister's piano lessons with her teacher, Mrs, Lovejoy, from whom you first heard of Beethoven and Bach, then, later, of Debussy and Ravel. You remember her saying it was probable that you--in this case not you but your sister--would be moved to tears when you heard Beethoven's violin concerto.
Was it the notion of eavesdropping from the closet? Was it the sincerity and conviction of Mrs. Lovejoy's voice? You did press to hear the violin concerto, yet, moved as you were when you first heard it, you were not moved to tears, nor would you be for some time to come.
Until you had more experience listening to music and investigating the feelings and their effects on you. Something had happened as a result of those closeted eavesdropping moments. Only last week, listening to something, you were transported back into the world of your curious, hungry, secretive self.
Experience is an event in which you either participated or became soaked by the random spray of its broadcast. In many cases, you were not the originating cause of the event, perhaps little more than a witness. Yet, you've remember the incident over the years to the point where it is a defining element of who you are, neither an item of nostalgia nor trauma, merely there for the endless drama of unsettled meaning.
You embrace the presence of experience in your real time life and in story, taking comfort in the awareness that story begins when two or individuals have differing perceptions of the same experience.
True enough, there are some stories of single individuals or, in one of the more memorable ones, Jack London's "To Build a Fire," a man and a dog. But such things are rare. The real experiences are stories and events wherein clashes of opinion and passions flare up, reminding you of the boyhood and adult experiences of watching fireworks displays.
Experiences are your best chances for forging a self you can live with and write with. Through the introduction of characters, who are assenting and dissenting voices of your own voice, you can edit the experiences that cost you the most concern and invent experiences that will open doors for you.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Dealing with experience is like trying to recover a dropped garden hose without getting yourself wet. Experience influences the effects of story on you as though your individual range of experiences were that same, dropped garden hose, drenching everything in sight without pattern or purpose.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
A former client has reappeared from out of the shadows, asking you for "back cover comments," which you interpret to mean a blurb.
"Congratulations on your publication," you reply, playing through the work, as you first saw it, then how it meandered through such editorial focus as you were able to convey and the author was able to put into effect.
The work bears an agreeable parallel to Heart of Darkness without being derivative. A young man sets out on a journey to deliver a message to a needy group of people, but in the process receives an even greater message from them. A nice project, stripped of its earlier tendency toward the over sentimental;
"Who is the publisher?" you wonder.
"Ah," the former client says. "There are some obstacles."
You now understand at least one of the obstacles.
Much of the essential nature of story resides in the appearance of a character who is driven by a yearning for something. Note the word choice at work there: driven and yearning, as opposed to the mere wishing or wanting.
In one remarkable swoop, we have Ishmael, yearning to get away from a bout of melancholy and depression, meeting Ahab, a man on fire with the ache of revenge.
Huckleberry Finn wants to get away from being civilized
Mattie, the narrator of Charles Portis's novel, True Grit, wants the man who killed her father brought to justice.
Richard III wants to be king of England.
Macbeth wants to be king of Scotland,
Frankie, the protagonist of Nelson Algren's novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, wants to be a musician.
Becky Sharp wants money and social position, but when it is offered to her, she cannot accept it.
In the motion picture Dog Day Afternoon, story collides with real time yearning as one of the characters, John Wojtowicz, is so desperate for money to pay for his lover's gender reassignment surgery that he undertakes the robbing of a bank.
Memorable characters stand out in our , their quests often seeming exaggerated to us until those moments when we are faced with a thing we want with such intensity that we overstep our own boundary markers and in the process risk the consequences of the metaphorical barbed wire.
In story, we speak of desire and yearning as driving forces. In real life, we speak of such driving forces as impatience. Your former client is impatient to be published, to have the work out in the world. Such impatience leads writers to self-publish, with little or no regard for how the publication process works.
To be sure, there are substantial numbers of poorly written books being published by the mainstream publishers, but the numbers of disastrous self-published books as opposed to those done with expertise is telling.
This is not a screed against self-publishing so much as it is a reminder to self about impatience and the consequences of allowing self to unnecessarily boil over. You have on at least two occasions, advised clients to self-publish because they had the means and energy for the necessary follow through.
You have on more occasions than you can remember with convenience allowed your impatience to govern your behavior to the point where you did things you are still paying for in your own estimation.
Impatience is the condition where an individual's desire for outcome crosses over boundary lines, resulting in a trespass on the individual's good sense. The message is clear to the storyteller parts of you, who on occasion become impatient when no projuect is forthcoming. When impatient, put all your eggs in one character, then push that character over the boundary. Story begins the next morning. Painful as booze hangovers are, there is no comparison to an impatience hangover.
Friday, August 29, 2014
A recent encounter with a new title from the adept and insightful novelist, Carl Hiaasen, once again reminds you what a splendid narrative tool anger can be. You are also reminded that you are one of the few teachers of creative writing and fiction studies who spends any significant time trying to find out from his students the things that piss them the most.
It is one thing to look at Hiaasen's novel, The Bad Monkey, as a mischievous entertainment, yet another to tie elements of its plot to contemporary social issues that should have been dealt with sooner, and another thing altogether to give Hiaasen the close reading he deserves in terms of how to convert pissed-off writers into dedicated men and women with missions.
There is no lack of published authors of whom it can be said and demonstrated that they are truly pissed. Nor can it be denied that certain among them have understood the potentials for power, imagination, and narrative tone inherent in anger. This group is relative in its ability to demonstrate artistic control as opposed to indulging outbursts of bombast.
For every Carl Hiaasen or Franz Kafka, there are five or six unfortunate antipodes such as Ayn Rand, Brett Easton Ellis, and Donna Tartt, writers who are so driven by their anger that instead of inspiring them, their anger incites them. Way back in the day, Laurence Sterne (1713-68) understood. "When a man," he said, " gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion,—or, in other words, when his HOBBY-HORSE grows head- strong,—farewell cool reason and fair discretion.''
You have carried that, and much else of Sterne, with you from your first encounter in your mid teens, delighting in the thought that books such as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman could make their way in the world. Angry as you were and eager to use it to lash out at what you considered injustices, hypocrisy, and sentimentality, the screed and rant never held appeal for you.
The literary magnets attracting the random iron filings of your youth were the likes of Mark Twain, James Thurber, and the satirists of whom it was scarcely possible to detect their ridicule.Then came the stunning work of the nearly forgotten twentieth century humorist, Peter DeVries.
Looking about you now, you are beginning to see emerging patterns in readings you care about. Your own personal reactions to things now differ from what would in earlier years have you overreacting.
There are also your observations of published angry authors and unpublished angry students, guidelines as it were toward making anger, outrage, and that boredom-on-steroids feeling of being fed up more easy to convert into useful tools, say characters, in stories.
Anger was not always as much fun as it is now; there are still frequent potentials for anger getting you in trouble, but it is a more nuanced and satisfactory trouble, the consequences much more satisfying. Things are less apt to get out of control in negative ways, where anger can cause things and relationships to break.
By now, you are so used to getting anger responses that you cannot imagine what life would be like were you no longer susceptible. Anger is an integral part of life in much the same way fear is. When you feel anger, you're responding to a message, perhaps from the Cosmos, perhaps from some random outside source, perhaps even the kinds of notes from your own conscience that you used to leave under the windshield wipes of cars whose owners had done something you considered offensive.
Anger wishes to be blended with other feelings, other kinds of awareness, all in order to give you the most intriguing path home to work at writing.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
At the mention the word "deadline" in a group of writers, a sudden charged electricity sense flashes forth like a shard of lightning on an early autumn day. You can look about the room, noting the variety of response, some seeming to be based in fear, others like clarion calls of a second wind clicking into place.
Deadline causes many vital elements to surface, their common denominator degrees of fear related to the eventual quality of the work due. First and foremost, deadline means a finite time frame, a point where the work must be done, then "sent in," or submitted.
Your earlier deadlines were newspaper oriented, meaning you had until X time to get the material to the editor in time for the scheduled edition. From such deadlines, you learned one of the lessons that would carry over to your days of writing multiple drafts. Having a story due by X o'clock was only a problem if you felt your material was short, lacking in facts, intrigue, some throbbing sense of importance.
Next came the time the project was due in the publisher's hands, whether the publisher was in the same city as you or another city or, perhaps, even in another country, where distances, time zones, postage rates, and delivery times were factors. Looking at such deadlines now, you realize how significant the change in matters of submission and means of delivery have changed.
Most deadlines now are tied to electronic submission. All you need to do to "send something off" is press the Enter key or the Send key. Most of your current documents are in so-called PDF or Portable Document Format files, which can be attached with some ease to an email, addressed to the recipient with a blind copy directed to one's self for record keeping. Then click the cursor in Send.
You did such a thing this week, when your literary agent asked you for a PDF of a recent project in order to send it to a publisher in Germany. Within moments after the request, the document is not only sent, it is in Germany, its receipt acknowledged with another tap of a Send key.
In the mid past, such a request would mean at least a day of logistics, beginning with checking to see if you had a copy of the typed manuscript, one that was as correct as you could make it. Then off to a Kinko's or some copy shop for a duplicate copy, then a page-by-page check, then fitting the manuscript in a box, wrapping it, and then a trip to the post office, where, just as you strode toward an open window, from the shadows, an elderly lady would dash ahead of you, plunk down two hundred fifty greeting cards for which she would wish a particular stamp for which the clerk would have to hunt.
Having a deadline forces you to wonder through what you call sociological thoughts. These have their basis in your working class origins, which means in essence that your tastes in such matters as clothing, food, drinking matter, books, and entertainment cause you to far exceed your income derived directly from writing. You have at the moment no plans to quit teaching or editing, both sources of income as well as activity.
Thus your need to be observant to another kind of deadline, the every-day-amount of time spent composing. In this need for time management, your working-class background forces you to consider the need for daily composition.
Your sociological thoughts nudge you to wonder how much more writing, if indeed you'd get any writing done at all, would you accomplish if you did not have editing and/or teaching chores. Such thoughts also cause you to wonder from time to time if you would ever finish anything if it were not for deadlines
Deadlines nudge you to consider the degrees to which you red-line assignments, finishing things on the exact date they are due as opposed to working to get them done as early as possible for the most revision time to spend with the final result.
Although it is well over twenty years in the past, you still recall a deadline you'd contractually agreed to on a novel Donald MacCampbell arranged with a publisher who, he assured you, was such a stickler that he considered being one day late a breech of contract.
Almost without realizing you were doing so, you found yourself looking forward to the emotional highs of having deadlines. What more tangible way is there to affirm your arrival at the plateau you strived for than to have a publisher expecting delivery of a specific project from you on or before a specific date?
You could--and did--live with that, until, with less warning than the awareness of deadline as emotional high coming your way, another kind of deadline made its way into your life as a game changer.
This particular deadline is the essence of simplicity, yet it contains all the fears, thoughts, imaginative procrastination devices, and self-examination of all the others, merged into one: the deadlines you set with yourself.
These are the best deadlines of all. You are in effect the kites you were so fond of flying as a boy and young man. A part of you has been lifted by the winds of your expectations, rising as high and independent as the string of your imagination will allow. Yet even as remote as the project gets from you, like the kite, it still responds to the merest tug on the string.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
The fourth wall is the imaginary wall between the characters in a play and the audience. If used to good effect, the fourth wall helps both the players and the audience in their collaborative effort to insure the drama being performed is in fact real.
Often in the early scenes of a live performance, when a major actor appears on stage for the first time, the audience will applaud. However slight a move to acknowledge and thank the audience on the part of the actor is a breaking of the fourth wall. The effect of the actor in the process of portraying a character, nevertheless acknowledging the appreciation of the audience is a contradiction in logic and process.
You've been in one theater or another when the applause effect ripples from the audience. The skilled actor will wait until curtain call to acknowledge the audience. Until then, the fiction maintains, the players are real people, performing with no awareness of, much less reference to the audience.
And yet. The fourth wall has been broken almost from the get-go of performance drama. Certain of the Greek dramatists wrote the activity into the script. Shakespeare with some regularity had his characters breaking the fourth wall to address the audience, and the venerable melodramas of late nineteenth- and early twentieth century plays had as a beloved feature the villain, addressing the audience with the famed line, "Little does she know--" a splendid revelation of hidden agenda.
In more modern times yet, in fact in absolute contemporaneous use, the well-regarded television series, House of Cards, features the character of Frank Underwood, following the paths of treachery to his goal as Richard III did before him. The Underwood character has frequent occasion to break the fourth wall. And yet.
We are neither dismayed nor surprised. How does it happen? Is it merely the ability of the actor, Kevin Spacey (which is considerable)? Is it the writing skills of Beau Wilmont? Is it the direction? Is it a combination of all these?
The equivalent of the fourth wall in printed fiction is the omniscient point of view. Among the contemporary writers most associated with the successful use of omniscient is the Irish writer, William Trevor Cox, known to millions of readers as William Trevor. In the same manner Kevin Spacey can get away with breaking the fourth wall, William Trevor can be seen in any of his many short stories or novels to use omniscient. In fact, he makes the use of omniscient seem so simple, so easy to control, that an entire generation of emerging writers and students has come forth to try the effect, saying in so many words, "If Trevor can do it, why can't I"?
If birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh, why can't I?
Because, you tell those to whom you can tell things, you are not Trevor.
You certainly know the frustration, the eagerness, the impatience. There were writers such as Trevor in orbit about you when you were younger, making all of storytelling seem so simple, so clear that you scarcely equated the seeming ease with technique. Thus were you lured into the writing life the way many an addict was lured into drugs or booze or sex or gambling: Because it seemed so easy, you believed you could do it, too.
When you began your parallel course of reading and writing, the author played a greater role in storytelling. Your studies took you back into the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, where the writer frequently broke the fourth wall to reassure the reader or lecture the reader or in some way supply the reader with information. You came upon masterful writers, the then equivalents of Kevin Spacey, who could break the written equivalent of the fourth wall with observations that were little more than stage directions.
When you finished your edits on his penultimate novel, The Last Boat to Cadiz, your great pal, Barnaby Conrad, said you'd worked the wonders of magic on it. All you'd done was remove the kinds of stage direction writing he'd learned from the writers and teachers of his generation.
What storytelling comes down to is a special blend of voice and technique. Today, August 27, 2014, the author doesn't tell the story. The characters demonstrate it, act it out as though they were real persons, caught in real moments of real time. She was impatient. Un unh. Try, She tapped her foot, increasing the tempo after a few moments.
You want to break the fourth wall? Okay; no problem. All you need is a character with as much agenda as Richard III, portrayed in modern dress as Frank Underwood, by an actor as intuitive and classy as Kevin Spacey.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
"You must admit," your client said, "that there were some pretty effective moments in those opening chapters." He was a large frame of a man, his curly gray hair running in distinctive cowlicks on his proportionately large head. Like many a person successful in a business or profession before turning his goals toward storytelling, he was used to being at a level where underlings reported to him with some degree of deference if not outright respect.
You admitted that the effective moments were, in effect, too far apart to warrant the client's offhanded admiration of them. "Readers for agents and editors will see through them," you said. "They're used to looking for holes and soft spots the same way a chiropractor is used to watching the way a patient moves when entering the examination room, headed toward the examination table."
"But surely you read all the way through," the client said. forcing you to remind him you'd been paid to do so. Readers for literary agents and editors are frequently instructed to stop as soon as they can.
Your client proceeded to demonstrate his leadership qualities. He wanted an answer leading to a tangible solution. "What's the next step?" he asked. "And don't give me any of that Samuel Becket fail again, but fail better crap."
Your nod was not a bobble-head nod, rather one of recognition that a point had been reached where you were about to become the target of the client's argumentative powers, then, when that failed, you were about to be offered at the least an equivalent of a month's income to "tight line edit" or "provide notes for a substantial restructure," either of which could be interpreted to mean that you would in essence write the first fifty or sixty pages.
What a pity things had to end on that note. The client had an intriguing enough approach to a story, fueled by a protagonist who could, with some close attention, carry another novel or two. The client also had an attitude and a quality you well recognize because you had it growing up, saw it morph to a more adult version of itself, then evolve into its middle-age and beyond aspect. The quality is, of course, impatience. Truth to tell, you are every bit as impatient now as your client, on whom you have in the neighborhood of a twenty-five year age advantage.
Your impatience is different than his. You know this because you owned the kind of impatience he has. His was the kind of impatience you began to see at work as you moved through the editorial ranks at your first significant publishing experience, acquiring the status of being able to contract a certain number of books a year without the need of getting approval from the editorial board.
One impatient author Scotch-taped gold dust to a query letter, another offered you a year's worth of spinal adjustments, yet another offered you a year's worth of deep-tissue scaling of your teeth, another still was convinced that if he could get you to your favorite restaurant, which at the time was a Sunset Strip venue called Scandia, after two or three martinis, you'd give up the secrets you and "the whole damned coterie of editors everywhere" kept from emerging writers, sharing them only with those "already in the club."
You were accused of taking on one author only because he was a doctor and medical thrillers were hot at the time, while in fact the accuser was an attorney who liked nothing better than to sue doctors.
There are explanations for such things; they are in effect all symptoms of impatience at work, impatience to be published, impatience to learn craft, impatience to find fresh ways of telling stories that could be cliches of they were not given the infusion of freshness.
Your impatience has always had to do with age, there is no gainsaying that, nor is there gainsaying your impatience is motivated by a different undercoating of fear than the impatience of your earlier years.
How fortunate you were able to come on John Keats when you did, in your early twenties, where he said it for you again and again as you moved through subsequent decades and subsequent varieties of impatience:
WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high pil`d books, in charact'ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face, 5
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more, 10
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
You were able to move beyond today's client, treat yourself to another coffee and almond croissant, then rush home to where your impatience waited for you, nagging. You never write. You never call. What am I to do with you?
Monday, August 25, 2014
When you look back at the times in your life before there were such things as hard drives, flash drives, or floppy disks on which to store writing projects, you see an ambitious succession of shelves. Some of these shelves were gifts from your father, relics of moribund businesses of which he was, for a time, a referee in bankruptcy.
Two such shelves have remained with you, living out their time with you as a storage for your short story collections and a home for the whimsical collection of bedside reading, mixed with the remnants of your Mark Twain collection and a shelf for some of the many titles you acquired and edited as an editor for the various publishers for whom you worked.
At least one other three-shelf cabinet, once a stained oak was left behind on the occasion of the sudden move from Hot Springs Road to here. This cabinet had undergone severe editing, the result of one strange and wonderful summer when you still lived in Hollywood.
You were out of salaried work, preparing for another binge of free lance writing. Your next door neighbor, Ray Piatti, an interior decorator, was similarly out of salaried work. Such is the nature of being out of salaried work that a project, any project, becomes a necessity to keep panic at a minimum and the focus of sanity in the foreground.
You had a project in mind, a mystery novel with, at that point, a vague plot. Soon, over a number of games of cribbage, the decision was made. You and Ray were going to redecorate your apartment to accommodate your about-to-begin venture into the freelance life.
On day two of the project, Ray knocked out a room divider, set up a small work area for you, and bade you get to work writing so that you wouldn't have to see the changes he had in mind before they were fully realized. Before you knew it, the three-shelf cabinet had lost height and girth, its stained oak finish now a glossy orange, speckled with purple and white.
Once you got over the transmogrification of much of your then furniture, the Piatti effect on your apartment was stunning. Even now, you visualize the results of the Barbara Court apartment with cheery nostalgia. You can see no traces of the place in the two shelves you have left, but you can recall with sentiment the orange, pot-and-crockery shelf abandoned when you left Hot Springs Road to come here.
You had a collection of books at Barbara Court, and the entire garage had been turned into a library at Hot Springs Road, although by no means one with the Piatti effect.
Most of the shelves were used to store screen treatments, television scripts, and television proposals, all embodiments of the standard 8 1/2 x 11 script format, three-hole punched, the pages secured by brass fasteners at the top and bottom holes. No one, except perhaps a rank amateur, would think to use a brass fastener for the middle hole.
True enough, there were a number of cardboard boxes, large enough to accommodate the 8 1/2 x 11 typing paper. These had novel manuscripts, and at least one box held short stories, while yet another held nonfiction short form work, such as the pieces dealing with Western history you cranked out for Charlie Sultan, a publisher of Western History magazines; book reviews, and your columns for the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial-Enterprise.
However precarious your income from the novels, short stories, and reviews, you were happier than you were when doing what you then called script and proposal work. Novels and short stories and even the Western history pieces for Charlie Sultan were, after all, writing. You'd not understood any number of vital things about the writing and editorial processes; those awaited you in short order. You did understand the frustration equated with the motion picture and television work, which was collaborative to a high degree.
Writing, then, meant things you did by yourself, without long meetings, without producers wanting you to find places in scripts for their girlfriends' dogs. Of course you wre happy then. You loved the burlap drapes Ray Piatti sewed for you. You loved your new work area, where books were close to hand, and in fact, the script and proposal work were filed in a mischievous set of shelves Ray built into your bedroom clothes closet.
Solo writing is a myth. Even such varied writers as Roth and Salinger and DeLilo, virtual hermits much of the time, were not completely alone, nor was Georges Simenon, although his method of work was to lock himself into his rooms, making sure he had a supply of pipe tobacco, and that his wife knew his needs for coffee and meals.
Even writers who, as the saying goes, do not take edits, are not alone. Sales and promptional persons are scheduling release dates, factoring which list the work will appear on, sending forth review copies. There is yet more: writers have potential individuals in their psyche, looking over their shoulder. Writers have influences of numerous sorts. Scratch any writer and you will find other writers and their works.
At one time, you blamed Mark Twain for getting you into this lifestyle. Then you blamed yourself and wondered how you had the courage and audacity to think of yourself in the same thought as Mark Twain. Then you began blaming others because as you read them, the gap between them and you was a Sargasso Sea, wide, deep, unfathomable.
When you last saw her in person, she had shiny, long, red hair. She sat two rows in front of you, come to Los Angeles to accept the LA Times Book Award for Love Medicine. Seated next to her editor, Patricia Strahan. So yes, Louise Erdrich influences you, if only in this sense: You have to keep busy writing so that you will not be set a flounder in the enormous gap between her stories and what you consider stories.
How many others are there like that? Bernard Malamud. Willa Cather. Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. John O'Hara. Deborah Eisenberg. Joan Didion.
Writers are not alone, but they are heartbroken wretches who must keep writing in order to keep any thought of dream alive. Writers remind you of the time it fell to your happy-but-naive lot to interview the ballerina, Maria Tallchief, the morning after she'd done Swan Lake at the age of thirty-six.
You were stunned by her devotion to her craft, being at the workout barre within hours of such a strenuous and demanding performance. "Devotion has nothing to do with it," she said. "If I werent here, doing this, I wouldn't be able to walk."
Every time you read the work of one of the writers of influence for you, you are aware of that relentless, wide sea in which you are afloat, and how, if you do not keep moving, you will sink.